BY QUYNH VO
After his phenomenal debut, The Sympathizer, which reaped several prestigious awards—Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur, and others—Viet Thanh Nguyen has swiftly embarked on his new project that pursues the sympathizer’s journey to Paris. This sequel is an irresistible vocation, an ardor that drives Nguyen fervently in his moral imagination. What is the catalyst for this sequel? Is it a burden or a zeal? Viet Thanh Nguyen has never ceased to inspire us.
Nguyen, with his flippancy, his elegance, and charisma, may at first beguile his jejune audience, seems worlds apart from the fiercely, politically polemic and didactic predilections that come to define his oeuvre. Nguyen does not hesitate to express his thrill of “mediocre” movies, like “Crazy Rich Asians,” nor does he take any umbrage at having his Pulitzer prize winning novel, The Sympathizer, sold in Costco (as he gracefully quipped in an interview with Seth Meyers,) as long as Asian Americans achieve what he calls “narrative plenitude” rather than inhabiting the economy of “narrative scarcity” where Asian Americans are either underrepresented on screen or must perform exceptionally to be seen.
Nguyen believes that “the right to be mediocre and rewarded for it” is “one measure of equality.” When it comes to identity politics, Nguyen touts unsparingly, “Minorities must dissent from the terms that a regime of whiteness offers. They must call forth anger and rage, demand solidarity and revolution, critique whiteness, domination, power, and all the faces of the war machine.” But, then, how does a writer grace his work with rage without undermining his political agenda or remaining in bitter dark after displaying his violent interiority?
In The Sympathizer, Nguyen smooths his inflammatory language into aesthetic philosophy. Hatred is mostly hostile to art, while anger—its tough, brooding kin—empowers writing and makes it sardonically alluring. If Tony Morrison exhibits her imperious difficulty in her writing, Nguyen displays his thrill of wrath in The Sympathizer. One of the marveling episodes is when the protagonist confronts the Hollywood Auteur in his movie, Hamlet, which portrays American white men as saviors to Vietnamese yellow victims. In his helplessness, the protagonist senses that “something new" would dominate the world, it is for the first time in history, “the most efficient propaganda machine ever created,” when the losers would write history instead of the victors. The spy’s irascible, haunting scream “AIEYAAHHH!!!” reverberates. This is where rage extends to literary art. That scream of fury is nonetheless soothed by the lure of Nguyen’s powerful craft. This is a kind of strategic appeal. If we are to follow outrageous narrator into his destructive vision, an intrinsic beauty goes a long way.
His fiery writing reminds me of Kafka’s aphorism: “…we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Nguyen’s oeuvre is that transcendent like a sentient apparition furiously haunting human consciousness.
We talked recently when Nguyen came to the University of Hawaii at Manoa to present a keynote lecture on War, Refugees and Storytelling: From Representation to Decolonization.
But is there any hope emanating from that grim story, in your book? It is not total despair, is it?
VIET THANH NGUYEN:
No, not total despair. When I finished The Sympathizer, right at the very end, I thought, "Oh, I have to give people some hope" as I was writing the last pages. And so the last few pages are supposed to be hopeful, but hope has to be calibrated. It can't just be sentimental.
So the hope is there, the narrator has hope, but it's only a ray of light in all this darkness. And so yes, the overwhelming mood is all these terrible things that happened, but he has enough light, enough hope to still continue. Is it a foolish hope? I think back to all those people, like you were saying, who fled the country as refugees, half of them didn't make it. They didn't live. So what do we make out of that? The ones who lived, they had hope, they survived. But the hope has been measured against the degree of danger and darkness that awaits him and everybody else on that boat.
Well, I'm deeply affected by your books, not only because they are very beautiful and amusing and haunting, but also because they challenge our moral imagination. The title of your novel, for example, like the protagonist in your narrative, seems treacherous. The sympathizer here is not about a communist sympathizer, as the symbolic color in the background of the cover might hint to the reader. He seems very politically ambivalent. So could you please elucidate your philosophy and literary preoccupations behind the entitling of this book?
Well, one thing that's interesting is that there's a debate among Vietnamese people who read the book about "how do we translate The Sympathizer, the title itself, into Vietnamese?" And so that gets a little bit to the fact that, in English at least, The Sympathizer has a very particular meaning to be a sympathizer, it has a very particular meaning to obviously be someone who is sympathetic with communism, and then of course someone, in this case, who has the capacity to feel great sympathy. And really the novel at this emotional level is not so much concerned with sympathy as it is with empathy, our capacity to feel deeply for other people as other people, which is what he does.
But The "Empathizer" doesn't exist in the English language, so The Sympathizer had to do. And I just felt that bringing together, in English, bringing together these two meanings of a sympathizer as someone who is politically sympathetic with someone who feels emotional and is sympathetic with other people, would allow me to deal with what I see as the central problem of revolutionary politics. Which is we feel sympathy for a cause and for people, and then that motivates us to action, and then when we take action, we have to be unsympathetic to people. So whenever I looked back at Vietnamese history, this was a thing that I couldn't get around, that it was such a terrible situation that the Vietnamese people found themselves in, of this time, because there was, for those who were involved in the politics, there was no way out of this dilemma. That feeling for other people and then having to not feel for other people in order to carry out a revolution or to fight a war. And in the aftermath of 1975, that problem never went away. [...]
That's how we can't sympathize with one another and reach a radical conciliation.
Contamination or anything impure could never exist in communist consciousness, as the commandant in The Sympathizer reminds the protagonist, that "people like you must be purged because you bear contamination that can destroy the revolution's purity." So why do you still construct that man of contaminated mind, and even more audaciously, a biracial spy in your novel?
I wanted to write a political novel and in the context of the United States it's hard to do that because in this country, unlike Vietnam, politics and art are not supposed to be brought together. We think that's a communist idea and there has been a tradition of political literature in the United States and I've read some of that. I can see that the easiest weakness or the easiest trap to fall into was to write a novel in which the politics weren't clear. In terms of cause, we're going to stand on the side of the good cause and that's what the political novel's about. That's not very interesting, because literature is best when it deals with the ambiguities, moral ambiguities and the ambiguity of our actions and their consequences.